Every night, like a religious tooth fairy, Celia Straus dropped a prayer on her daughter's pillow. The first came when 12-year-old Julia asked her mother to write something to help her sleep despite her worries; then for a year the act became a ritual. Julia collected the prayers in a bedside bureau next to her hand lotion and her retainer. Not even her father or sister knew. The prayers were hers alone: secret exchanges between mother and daughter.
Before I go to sleep each night,
Before I turn off every light,
Let me put away my fears,
Let me brush away the tears . . .
Then, lo and behold, they became a book.
And the book, "Prayers on My Pillow," became 55,000 books. Plus a popular Web site. Plus a CD in production and, eventually, a calendar. Plus hopes for a new book. Now the Cleveland Park mom spends chunks of her days reading crisis e-mails from desperate girls and sending them prayers.
Since its debut last November, the slim volume with a cover the color of pastel candies has seemed to adapt itself to the pop-cultural needs of the moment: It's a Christmas book. It's a post-Columbine-tragedy book. The prayers Straus wrote to help her daughter through adolescence spread to Julia's friends, and then to an agent. And in less than a year, an intimate exchange between mother and daughter spawned a multimedia commercial enterprise.
But what a strange straddling of inner and outer worlds. After all, prayers seem the very blueprint of privacy. They are the whispered, desperate words of insomniac nights. They are the pleadings of adolescence, eyes straining at a dark ceiling. In prayer people ask for things they'd never ask for in day-to-day life. Impossible things. To mass produce these pleas for others seems a transgression.
You have no idea, says Julia, now 16, what it's like to walk into a bookstore and pick up a book that was written for you. You have no idea what it's like to walk past Barnes & Noble and see a cardboard cutout of yourself, your sister and your mom in the window. "I just walked by and there I was."
She's sitting with her 12-year-old sister, Emily, in a Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue. For a year now, they've watched their mom do book readings and engage in online chats; they've appeared with her on television; they've sat with reporters in coffee shops and tried to explain how this book began and where it's gone.
They're awfully proud of their mom. But sometimes the trappings of publicity are strange.
"This wasn't just, like, Mom wrote a book about gardening," Julia says. "This is a book about us."
These are the buyers: mothers, childless aunts, women who know other women with teenage daughters, neighbors who think, This is just the thing for Alice's kid Jessie, now there's one growing up fast. There are the girls themselves, 12-year-olds who find Straus's book through word of mouth or through her Web site when they're sweeping across the Net looking for online solace. They buy the book, they besiege the Web site (Straus gets 35,000 hits a month, on average at www.girlprayers.com), they thank her, they bless her, they beg her for help.
The requests ooze with the particularly dark desperation of adolescence. Sample them: There's the one who says she's been severely abused; the one whose brother has a drug problem. There's one who writes, "I commet sucied three times and I need gods forgiveness." There's the girl who writes that she was raped and now she has to go to school with her rapist, and can you write a poem for that, please, Celia? These girls don't want a prayer to help them sleep at night; they want a prayer with wings, something to spirit them out of ugliness.
It's a stark contrast to what Straus admits is the "upper-middle-class angst" of her daughters. Emily, for whom Straus wrote poems later, and Julia seem strikingly well adjusted. They are blond and green-eyed A- and B-students, both of whom play the violin and several sports. Julia paints impressively. Emily reads Dylan Thomas. Ask them about Mom and Dad and they tumble over each other's sentences to convey their enthusiasm. They love to spend time with their parents. Sometimes, Julia confesses, she turns down her friends and stays in on Friday nights just to hang out with them.
Jennifer Richards, publicist for "Prayers," says that when she pitched the book to "The Oprah Winfrey Show," a producer turned her down because there wasn't a conflict in the real-life story. Had the Straus girls been raped? Were they ever on drugs? "They needed more juice," Richards says the producer told her.
That's where the readers come in. They stretch Straus's poems to fit their needs. There are prayers about anxiety, fear, grief. All are prayers to God--a nondenominational, genderless, kindly higher power, the God that Celia Straus, raised Episcopalian, believes in. Her husband, Richard, 51, is Jewish, and they raised their two daughters without any particular faith.
But in the process of transforming the verses from nightly gestures of motherly affection to a mass-market product, something else happened. The intimacy of those poems--now in a sixth printing at Ballantine--seems to have dissolved. It's as if the poems don't belong to the Straus girls anymore.
In her office, Straus keeps a gift Julia made her: a "Celia Straus Paper Doll." It's Julia's spoof on the phenomenon that made her mother a surrogate mom to thousands of little girls. The folder containing the doll reads:
"I wish Celia Straus was my mom."
Whatever it is that spirited "Prayers" to prominence--an unmet need in the collective adolescent unconscious or some quirky twist of fate--Straus's own elbow grease didn't hurt.
Straus is a working writer in her late forties who makes her living scripting trade and educational films, documentaries and motivational tapes, and she's a natural spokesperson. In a world where unproductive, would-be writers are as common as summer weeds, she has the discipline to freelance from home, the charm to network well and the practical savvy to make money at it.
It is through her own efforts that many of the readings, the newspaper profiles and the television interviews have been set up. It is she who dispatches the persistent e-mails and makes the calls, her voice dropping to an earnest breathiness when she explains, "I think girls and young women are hungry to meet the needs of the spirit. . . . The prayers touch all the feelings and changes that they are going through."
"She's really the selling point for this thing," says Straus's editor at Ballantine, Joanne Wyckoff.
"I never aspired to be the prayer lady," Straus confesses.
It's not the profit that keeps her going, she says; the books have made her a sum in the low five figures. The point, she stresses, is that she wrote this book out of love, and perhaps it's appropriate that "the writing that I did that was most from the heart . . . is the writing that got the attention."
Of course, revelations of the heart carry consequences.
"For a while, yeah, I was kinda upset," says Julia. She gave her mom permission to use the prayers in the book, and they eliminated ones that were too personal. Still, says Julia, at first "it was not something I was particularly interested in sharing with the general public."
But put aside the phenomenon of airing private dramas on a public stage. In an age of bare-all memoirs and confessional talk shows, the Straus family particulars are hardly sensational. What is perhaps stranger is that prayers, the most private exchanges between the individual and the unknown, should be marketed, made user-friendly.
Straus says she knows some people believe inspirational books like hers are "cotton candy for the soul." But "Prayers" is for the "end-user," she says, the real little girl who needs reassuring words at the end of the day.
"This book was most popular at Sam's Club," Straus says, an occurence that "touched my heart."
And Straus plans to keep her purpose pure. The upcoming projects, like the CD and the calendar, draw on the original poems she wrote for Julia and Emily, poems she wrote out of love. To manufacture more for future books "violates the nature of the project."
The thing is, says Julia, sitting in Starbucks, this is our mom. She is so much more than the prayer lady.
"This is so nothing compared to how amazing she is," Julia says. "If you could just understand how this is her, every day."
And it's her mom--not her mom's book--that Julia has chosen to focus on as she's growing older. Emily joins her mother for television interviews, but Julia has distanced herself from all the publicity. She doesn't want to be forever fixed in people's imaginations as the 12-year-old girl who asked her mom for a prayer.
This past summer she went to France, and for the first time in a long time, Julia says, her mom wrote her a prayer. Straus sent it via e-mail, and when Julia opened it, she started to cry.
"With all this publicity, I've kind of given up on what it had meant to me. I had forgotten," Julia says. But maybe it's for the best, she says, that so many seem to find solace in her mother's creations.
"Sometimes I wonder if, I dunno, that's what these were meant for."
CAPTION: Celia Straus, whose prayers written for her daughter inspired a book, with children Julia, left, and Emily.